In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

On Free Speech and Platforms

On-Free-Speech-And-Platforms.jpg

It is not the Star Chamber. (Edited: Wikimedia Commons)

A member of the leadership in the National Union of Students did not wish to attend an event at Canterbury Christ Church University about “re-radicalising queers” with the civil rights campaigner Peter Tatchell [1]. In response, Peter Tatchell wrote in the Telegraph [2]:

Free speech and enlightenment values are under attack in our universities. In the worthy name of defending the weak and marginalised, many student activists are now adopting the unworthy tactic of seeking to close down open debate. They want to censor people they disagree with. I am their latest victim.

This is not quite the Star Chamber, but it is the same intolerant mentality. Student leader Fran Cowling has denounced me as racist and transphobic, even though I’ve supported every anti-racist and pro-transgender campaign during my 49 years of human rights work.

“Worrying pattern”

The apparent source of Ms Cowling’s consternation is the Observer open letter, signed by Mr Tatchell in February 2015, which began [3]:

The fate of Kate Smurthwaite’s comedy show, cancelled by Goldsmith’s College in London last month (“What could be more absurd than censorship on campus”, Nick Cohen, Comment) is part of a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed “transphobic” or “whorephobic”. Most of the people so labelled are feminists or pro-feminist men, some have experience in the sex industry, some are transgender.

Last month, there were calls for the Cambridge Union to withdraw a speaking invitation to Germaine Greer; then the Green party came under pressure to repudiate the philosophy lecturer Rupert Read after he questioned the arguments put forward by some trans-activists. The feminist activist and writer Julie Bindel has been “no-platformed” by the National Union of Students for several years.

These events should be examined in turn. The Comedy Society at Goldsmith’s College stated that “there was likely to be a picket with lots of students and non-students outside the venue” — according to an unverified claim made by Ms Smurthwaite herself — and the comedy show had “only sold eight tickets” [4].

At this point, the Comedy Society “decided to pull the plug”. This is not ‘No Platform’: it is ‘No Interest’. No comedy club has a mandate to run any event, particularly if that show is unpopular. This does not appear to be “part of a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals”.

Speeches and counter-events

There may have been calls for the Cambridge Union to withdraw their speaking invitation to Germaine Greer, but her talk went ahead nonetheless [5]. A counter-event was staged against Ms Greer’s “hate speech” by some student activists.

(Video: The Cambridge Union)

Dr Read was a parliamentary candidate for the Green Party in the 2015 General Election, standing in the constituency of Cambridge [6]. If Dr Read had been elected, then he would have been able to vote on legislation affecting transgender people. It is perfectly acceptable for activists to question what the Green Party’s position was.

No platform

This means that the only claim in the open letter that has some intellectual weight is the policy against writer Julie Bindel. Many arguments against a ‘No Platform’ policy — where no proscribed person should be given a platform to speak, nor should union officers share platforms with such people — are inherited from those made in defence of freedom of speech [7].

It is worrying that students and their institutions are choosing to adopt restrictive speech codes on campuses, where universities should be the epicentre of intellectual debate and raucous discussion. Universities should be beacons of inquiry and analysis, emanating to the nations.

However, we should be precise: whether a NUS officer chooses to go to an event with a civil rights campaigner is not about free speech. As Mr Tatchell recognises, free association must mean that Ms Cowling has every right to refuse invitations based on other attendees.

References

[1] McVeigh, T., 2016. Peter Tatchell: snubbed by students for free speech stance. The Guardian. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/feb/13/peter-tatchell-snubbed-students-free-speech-veteran-gay-rights-activist [Accessed: 17th February 2016]

[2] Tatchell, P., 2016. The intolerant student Left has even turned on me – a lifelong civil rights campaigner. The Telegraph. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/12158352/The-intolerant-student-Left-has-even-turned-on-me-a-lifelong-civil-rights-campaigner.html [Accessed: 17th February 2016]

[3] The Observer, 2015. We cannot allow censorship and silencing of individuals. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2015/feb/14/letters-censorship?CMP=twt_gu [Accessed: 17th February 2016]

[4] Myers, R., 2015. Kate Smurthwaite: the comedian who confused no interest with no platform. The Telegraph. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/society/11386478/Kate-Smurthwaite-the-comedian-who-confused-no-interest-with-no-platform.html [Accessed: 17th February 2016]

[5] Selby, J., 2015. Germaine Greer ‘should not be invited back’ to Cambridge University after appearing to deny the existence of transphobia. The Independent. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/germaine-greer-not-invited-back-to-cambridge-university-after-appearing-to-deny-the-existence-of-10010405.html [Accessed: 17th February 2016]

[6] Payton, N., 2015. Green Party candidate accused of transphobia. Pink News. Available from: http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2015/01/22/green-party-candidate-accused-of-transphobia/ [Accessed: 17th February 2016]

[7] Masters, A., 2012. No Platform, No Sense. In Defence of Liberty. Available from: https://anthonymasters.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/no-platform-no-sense/ [Accessed: 17th February 2016]

 

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: